Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl named Mary. She had a handsome husband and a sweet baby girl and a lovely home by the sea. And Mary was sick and although she fought valiantly and with great determination, Mary died and everyone was sad.
And it was all a lie.
My online community was rocked recently by the death of one of our own. Sadly, the event wasn’t unexpected, as we’d all been watching with Mary for over a year as she fought cancer that spread from one part of her body to another, faster than any treatment could keep up with. She had a kidney transplant and a bone marrow transplant and a double mastectomy. She had chemotherapy and radiation and surgery after surgery and through it all, she was brave and focused and somehow managed to maintain the witty, sarcastic sense of humor for which she was known. She was a living example of grace under fire, of meeting adversity with dignity, of iron forged by fire into steel.
We admired her. We grieved for her and for her husband and for the two-year-old daughter who would only hear stories of what a wonderful woman her mother had been.
It was all a lie. All of it.
The deception was well-crafted and very well done. It played out over y-e-a-r-s. Mary co-founded one of the largest fandom message boards and was besties with the author of a blog known for what are arguably the best and most thoughtful literary analyses of each one of the first 100 episodes of the series.
Mary was real. Ask anyone who knew her. There were years of phone calls and text messages and photos and emails. She was real. There was never any doubt and never any reason to doubt. She was real.
Except that she wasn’t.
Mary died on Wednesday afternoon. A few months ago, she’d been told there were no further treatment options and that she might have a year of life left to live.
She made her peace with death. She recorded videos for her daughter. She met with her ex-husband to say goodbye and to offer a final forgiveness for his abusive treatment of her. She went to Hawaii. She went to Vegas.
Then she caught an infection and it so damaged her kidneys that there was nothing else to be done. Her body was so weak from being ill for so long, the only option as she slipped away was to send her home and make her comfortable.
She died surrounded by her husband and her daughter and her family and, oh, we all grieved. It was so sad.
Such a sad, tragic, heartbreaking story.
It was all a lie.
Mary died on Wednesday.
On Friday, the truth came out. Photos were found, of real people, living real lives on the other side of the country. There was a real little girl, with real parents, who had left the baby years of the stolen photos behind.
Mary’s story was a lie. All of it.
But here’s what wasn’t a lie.
Our reaction. The fandom’s reaction.
This happened in the Bones community but let’s be honest: the same thing can — and has — happened anywhere and everywhere.
Online communities aren’t static dollhouses where everything stays where it’s put until an omniscient hand reaches in to make changes.
Online communities are just that, communities. Real, vibrant, elastic, growing hamlets of living, breathing, normal, weird, everyday, awesome men and women.
What wasn’t fake about the fake life and the fake stories and the fake death of this fake woman was how we as a community responded.
The Bones community isn’t perfect. There are cliques and in-crowds and out-crowds. There are maliciously catty groups of Mean Girls who gleefully shred in public any fanfic or writer who is, in their opinion, subpar. There are annoying circle jerks of reciprocity and an echo chamber that can’t be unheard with earplugs. There is whining. There is bitching. There are endless discussions over the pulverized remains of long-dead horses. There is smugness and superiority and I’M RIGHT AND YOU’RE WRONG AND WHY CAN’T YOU ADMIT THAT!
And despite those imperfections, or perhaps because of them, when one of our own passed away, the outpouring of grief and love, of support and affection, was beautiful to see.
The fandom came together to support the family of a woman most of us didn’t know and had never spoken to.
Who, as it turned out, was fake.
Mary was fake. Our grief was genuine.
So was the flood of comfort that flowed to the women who knew Mary best, who considered her a sister, a best friend, a confidant. We shared their sorrow even if we didn’t share their close ties. We’ve all experienced loss and we cried with them and for them.
And when the truth was discovered, after the shock, amid the “what/when/how/whyyyy?” questions we’ll never have answers to, we blanketed each other again with words of comfort and support.
Especially for — especially for — the women who thought they knew Mary best. They experienced not only the death of a friend they loved, but the betrayal of a friendship that never was.
I’m not sorry I grieved for a woman who didn’t exist, or for the family that wasn’t.
I’m not sorry because in that moment, I looked around and resolved to appreciate more the real friends I’ve made, while I still can.
I’m not sorry because grieving the loss of one member made me more grateful for the rest of the community.
I’m not sorry because the grief was genuine, the desire to offer comfort was genuine, the support was genuine.
In the middle of jokes about fake life and the fake death, about requiring references and bonafides and playing different versions of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, there was a sincere appreciation of honest and real friendship and what that means in a world where we all spend a lot of time talking to each other from different keyboards.
We were catfished. And the person we knew as Mary was fake.
What we can learn from the experience, though, that can be as positive as we allow it to be.
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